May 30, 2020
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Songs Sung Blue

Dalit students speak of how our universities foster regressive views

Songs Sung Blue
Songs Sung Blue

Indian universities seem to be failing in creating an enabling environment for scholars to respect life, liberty and fellow human beings. Closed minds, fixed ideas, a refusal to see opposing viewpoints speak of poor health (and vision) on the campus. It is perhaps not surprising to find out that Hyderabad Central University is not the only place where Dalit students are at the receiving end of deep-rooted prejudice. Universities, it would appear, have ceased to be places where everyone is equal, where ideas thrive and where discussions do not end up in violent clashes. There also seems to be a total breakdown of communication between university officials and students. This is helped no end by growing interference by governments, which believe they have the right to control universities because they fund them. It’s time to see that universities are not ruled by fear and that the system does not breed injustice. Outlook spoke to five Dalit students in the aftermath of the suicide in Hyderabad. This is their story:

Photograph by Nirala Tripathi

“I’ve Been At The Receiving End Of An Orchestrated Campaign”

Shreyat Bouddh, 20
Babasaheb Ambedkar University, Lucknow

After graduating from Allahabad University, when I joined the Baba­saheb Bhimrao Ambedkar Univ­er­sity in Lucknow in 2014, I dreamt of taking my passion for Dalit studies to new heights. So I enrolled for a masters in history with focus on Indian Dalit history, and chose BBAU because it offers special cou­rses related to the downtrodden castes. But I’ve been at the receiving end of what seems an orchestrated campaign against the very ideals propounded by Ambedkar in a central university named after him.

Perhaps it’s sheer coincidence that Hyd­er­abad Central University, where Rohith Vemula committed suicide, is a central university, like this one. But surely it’s no coincidence that officially sponsored discrimination against Dalits is rampant. And it’s no coincidence that our vice-chancellor, Prof R.C. Sobti, and proctor, Prof Kamal Jaiswal, both non-Dalits, openly discriminate against SCs. It’s no coincidence either that three Dalit students, including myself, have been expelled because we raised our voice for Dalit students. But tomorrow, if we are compelled to take the extreme step, it would be regarded as a coincidence.

Trouble began for me when Dalit students objected to the administration naming the university library after Sardar Patel. I backed the protests as part of the Ambe­dkar University Dalit Students Union. We felt it was inappropriate to name anyth­ing in an institution such as BBAU after someone who couldn’t be related to Amb­ed­­kar’s ideology. Our protests were success­ful, and on January 13, 2015, the administration named the library after Gautam Buddha.

But I became a marked man, having been at the forefront of the campaign. I also drew attention when I protested against the university’s decision to hike fees—up to eight times! When you join a government university, you don’t expect to be fleeced. For the affluent, there are private universities, but for poor students like me, fees matter. Around August 16, I was discussing the issue over dinner with fellow-students at the hostel mess when we were assaulted by elite-caste students. I tried to argue that those from poor families, like mine, could not afford it, but faced abusive language against Dalits in general and me in particular. We were beaten up badly but the proctor ignored our written complaint, though he assured us of suitable action and said we mustn’t report the matter to the police. Soon, I realised the attack was sponsored by the administration, which had prodded the elite-caste students to lodge an FIR against me and some other Dalit students. We did approach the police, but they booked us for assaulting those who had in fact beaten us up. Within 48 hours of that, on August 18, I and two Dalit students were served expulsion orders and asked to vacate the hostels. Entry on campus was banned. Since then, our pleadings have fallen on deaf ears and we couldn’t take our semester exams in December.

Now, I live in part of a rented room, paying Rs 1,800 per month. Then there are food expenses. Not at all affordable by father, a retired school-teacher. But he supports me in the hope I’ll get justice.

I had a mind to raise our problem before Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is scheduled to attend the convocation ceremony of our university on January 22. But feelers were sent to me that if I tried anything like that, the university would have me charged with “anti-nat­ional” or “terrorist” activities. 

As told to Sharat Pradhan

Photograph by Kashif Masood

“Inevitably, We Dalits Students Get Branded”

Arjun P, 28
PhD student in the Kannada department, Bangalore University

Last year, we had taken out a protest march from the university campus to Freedom Park (a venue for demonstrations near the secretariat in Bangalore). We were protesting bec­ause the fellowship grants of a few PhD students, including myself, had been held up for over one-and-a-half years.

When nothing came of it, I wrote to the university saying that I would have to consider committing suicide because I was finding it difficult to manage without the fellowship grant. At that time, I didn’t get much support from other students. Only my closest friends stood by me, so I at least had some emotional support. Of course, some teachers also called and advised me, saying that nothing could be achieved by committing suicide.

Perhaps something similar happened in Rohith Vemula’s case. The whole campus could have supported him, because it was after all a student who was facing injustice. I felt very sad on reading his letter.

There are lots of reasons that cause such situations. If I were to hazard a guess about the Rohith Vemula incident—though it is being said that he took the extreme step because of the difficulties he faced as a Dalit student—it’s possible that many Dalits themselves, including students, would have unwittingly contributed to the situation he was in.

We don’t want to be branded as Dalit students, but it inevitably happens most of the time. It happens with friends...bec­ause we stay in a hostel meant for Dalits and so we are already recognised as Dalit students. It’s not students but the administration that has an important role to play here. They should take the initiative to ensure that there is unity because everybody here is educated. If that happens, perhaps there would be no hierarchies among us, or discrimination. At the same time, in every university, there will be some Dalit professors who will not let students mingle. There could be many reasons for that, but many a times it’s also useful for their politics.

Usually, all this doesn’t happen in school, or until the pre-university level, because at that age we wouldn’t be conscious of caste in general. It’s when we come to the undergraduate level, and when we get some social exposure, that these caste issues begin. And later, it gets divided into groups and sub-castes.

I feel that SC/ST cells in universities should be strengthened so that academic problems can be handled better. At the same time, student representatives should also be elected...I do realise this will lead to more politics, but these representatives will be useful in official meetings with the academic council.

As told to Ajay Sukumaran

“I Had To Face Discrimination All On My Own”

Deepa P. Mohanan, 30
Research scholar in nanotechnology, IIUCNN Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam

The horror and pain I have experienced has made me want to commit suicide ten times over. I understand the pain Rohith Vemula must have gone through, and although he had the support of four friends, he could not handle it. I had to face my problems alone. I live alone in a PG accommodation with my four-year-old child in Kottayam because my husband works in the Gulf.

Even today I don’t have a chair to sit at the centre. I have to sit in the library and work out of there. Many times, I’ve been thrown out of the bio lab, or locked out so that I cannot work. My problems began after I completed my MPhil at this centre and got into the PhD programme.

For about one-and-a-half years, the joint director of the centre (now the director) started harassing and embarrassing me. Once when I made a PowerPoint presentation, he accused me of plagiarism in front of my fellow students. I stopped and cried because it was my work. Though everyone knew the truth, no one came to my support. My accuser had powerful Left connections. My family has been Left-leaning, so I felt betrayed. Then began the slow harassment. The (then) joint director would ensure I didn’t get study material and locked me out of the lab. I was once locked in the building. I am a heart patient, so I called the police to rescue me. After continuous harassment, I met the pro-VC, and learnt that the joint director had said he wouldn’t show any favour to Dalits because that would lower the discipline of the centre.

After my complaint against the joint dir­ector for throwing me out of the lab to the university syndicate, the pro-VC, the pol­ice, the human rights commission and the women’s commission in March last year, suddenly a group called ‘Porattam’—of which I have never heard or had any connections to—put up posters at the centre, saying the teacher harassing me would be killed. This was clearly an attempt to build a case against me and trap me.

I was quickly labelled a Maoist. A meeting was convened at the centre and the Special Branch police started making inq­uiries in my hometown, my husband’s hometown, my parents’ workplace, my brother-in-law’s workplace. People star­ted talking of me, and often I felt like ending my life. But the support of my husband and close friends kept me going.

The Special Branch has examined my call records for the past 10 years and found nothing. The syndicate members who investigated my case have given a report in my favour, but my tormentor is very powerful. For one-and-a-half years now, I have been walking in and out of police stations, the VC’s office, and even sat on strike instead of doing my research. Today, I still sit in the library though my name has been cleared. I am not a Maoist. I am not any party member either. I am just a student and research scholar.

As told to Minu Ittyipe

Photograph by Amit Haralkar

“Casteism At University? It’s Serious, Yaar!”

Dhammrakshit Randive, 26
MA Theatre Arts, Mumbai University (Now part of Yalgar Sanskrutik Chalval, an activist performing arts group dedicated to cultural politics)

I had always lived in Satara with my parents and brothers. In this place, caste discrimination is handed out only in the traditional manner, as one might expect in rural areas. My father is an Ambe­d­karite folk-singer and works as a Class IV employee. I was protected as a child and my brothers went on to do  MBA and engineering. But when I moved to Mumbai for my masters, I realised that discrimination is very much part of the system.

Rohith Vemula’s suicide affected me for this particular reason. It has shocked us because it shows that nothing is insulated from caste discrimination. At educational institutions, everyone should be treated equally and all students must be res­pected, but we realise that the whole system is actually against us. The officials and teachers are standing in opposition to their own students. What happens in villages is expected at some level—though not acceptable—but still one expects it. But at a university? This is very serious, yaar. This has become very serious.

Most people who are part of the Ambedkar movement protest legally, whether it is organising lectures or demonstrations. But increasingly, the ABVP is getting stronger in Mumbai and they have become politically more active. Especially after the BJP came to power at the state and the Centre. We’ve felt it on the campus too: for example, if we want to organise a programme to discuss the killings of Comrade Pansare or Prof Kalburgi, we do not get permission easily or there is police presence. Not just that, all year round, Hindu festivals are celebrated officially such as Satyanarayan Puja or Ganpati festival. If students like us, from other religions, who do not believe in idol worship, do not participate, we become outsiders.

I am lucky to have family support, but there are so many Dalit students who come from very difficult backgrounds. Most people do not understand their conditions and still comments about reservation are very frequent. “Why do you need reservations?” “Why don’t you stay back in your village?” Such comments. A Facebook post that says open category students study and SC students sleep through the courses was circulated widely. And this happens among friends, let alone strangers or government officials. They are not sensitised and they hurt these students intentionally or uni­ntentionally. Negative posts on FB and Whatsapp are just too frequent.

Also, it is not always possible to argue and debate with them. I believe education should be free for everyone, but caste discrimination is not only about finances. I wish to interact and reach out to more and more people and talk about all this. I will use my theatre training to understand and deconstruct cultural politics. The RSS wants to spread hatred and that is what they are doing. They are successful in polluting minds of common people against the minorities. But Brahminism is not about caste, it is a tool of discrimination. We have to go to every nook and corner and reclaim the diversity advocated by Kabir and Ambedkar. We have to do this for Rohith and we have to do this for human freedom. We need to do this urgently without waiting to decide whether it should be under a red flag or a blue flag.

As told to Prachi Pinglay-Plumber

Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee

‘Are SCs Not Supposed To Wear Nike Or Such Brands?

Amrita Howlader, 28
PG in English, Jadavpur University, Calcutta. Currently a research scholar.

The term ‘SC’ was just like any other abbreviation I learnt at school. I could easily club it with abbreviations like PS or CPM. Like the inevitable onset of adolescence and menstruation, I came to the realisation that I belonged to the Scheduled Castes. I had no control over any of those things.

When I got admission to Jadavpur University, everyone at home was both shocked and impressed. But I’d got in through ‘reservation’, and a schoolmate mercilessly drove it home, saying, “If I was an SC, I’d have got through too.” I recall feeling numb, but retorting, “I’m sorry, your forefathers were not exploited enough to get you that honour.” I was angry, hurt, bleeding within.

My close friends were, and continue to be, city-bred Brahmins. It did become a joke, however, that I was from a small town and dressed in a particular way. I remember I had a velvet T-shirt that attracted much amused commentary. But, I thought, had it been manufactured by Gucci, would the comments have changed?

I learnt that in the boys’ hostel, there was a so-called ‘TUMPA group’, the sneering expansion of TUMPA being ‘Typically Uncouth Midnapore Peoples Association’. Everyone from Midnapore became a TUMPA boy, and most of them happened to be from the ‘reserved’ category. The refrain was that TUMPA boys would always get jobs, while the rest would sit and suck their thumbs. General category students who failed exams were never teased or targeted for it.

A senior student once sprang upon me, raging at the SCs in her class. She said they were dimwits who understood nothing, got in because of “fucking” reservations, disrupted lectures with inane questions and would graduate with low second-division marks and described an amazing lecture by a professor that an SC student marred by asking several questions. “But I’m also an SC,” I quietly pointed out. She was taken aback and stared at me for two seconds. “But you don’t look like an SC, you don’t dress like an SC!” she said and walked away.

I distinctly remember that I was wearing a Nike T-shirt. Were SCs not supposed to wear Nike or similar brands, I wondered. Was I to have ‘Mera Baap SC Hai’ tattooed on my forehead?

‘Our Problems Are Just Ignored

Anish Kumar V K, 32
Research Scholar, Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady, Kerala.

Rohit Vemula’s suicide is tragic and it shows the dangerous extent that fascism has spread its tentacles. In the University of Hyderabad, the Ambedkar Students Association members had protested against the hanging of Yakub Memon as a part of their democratic right but they were labelled as "anti-nationals". There is evidence that two central ministers interfered with the independent functioning of the university to have the five dalit students suspended and denied Rohith Vemula his fellowship grant and also had the students expelled from the hostel. 

This political interference was a part of the muscle-flexing exercise of the ABVP who probably felt they had lost space to the Dalit students Union and SFI combine last year in the students’ union election. It was specific targeting of these Dalit students because there were protests in many parts of the country against Yakub Memon’s hanging and no action was taken against anyone else. Ambedkar was never an anti-national so how can an association in his name be termed as one? 

While suspending the Dalit students, the university did not take into consideration the background of the students or listen to their grievances. One of the biggest issues that Dalit students face is when we give a complaint nothing is done about it. Our problems are just ignored, they are never resolved easily. 

The campuses are difficult places for Dalit students. We are often looked down by the academia. There is a general thinking in the campuses that Dalit research scholars do not have the intellectual capacity to analyse and interpret things. The academic community and the university do not see the social reasons if a Dalit student fails to excel. Instead of ridiculing us the academia should find a solution for this. Many of the students may be from such poor backgrounds that they may not even have had the opportunity to read books in their school years. There is a kind of intellectual discrimination. I am a member of the Research Scholars Association and many times we have had to intervene and take up issues with the syndicate. There have been instances when no faculty is willing to become guides for the Dalit research scholars and it had to be taken up with the syndicate. Only then will the faculty agree.

There was an incident when a girl student was denied food in the canteen. The college fees, hostel and mess fees is paid by the state government and since it was late in coming, the university should have paid the hostel and mess fees. But this was not done. The canteen is run by the student body and they denied her food. She however protested and took the food to eat but was surrounded by the other girl students and hooted at. When we arrived we found her cowering in a corner. She then had to move to another hostel.

There was another case of a girl joining for a PG course while her two siblings are already research scholars. She was marginalised and ridiculed by the student community and faculty because naturally she would also follow her sisters and become a research scholar. That meant the government would be paying the fees of three children from one family and that led to vicious anger towards her. No one considered that they were from a poor background and were being brought up solely by their mother. In the end she discontinued her studies and joined another course.

The last item by Anish Kumar V K is a web extra and does not appear in the print version of the magazine.

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